Trump’s bid to control election offices hits first battleground
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger will soon face voters for the first time since he refused then-President Donald Trump’s pressure to “find” votes to overturn the 2020 election results.
And from the polls in Georgia to the early returns for GOP candidates like him this year, there are warning signs everywhere for Raffensperger’s campaign.
Candidates who subscribe to Trump’s conspiracy theories about a stolen election haven’t won any Republican secretary of state primaries yet this year. But that may only be down to local quirks and split fields: Election deniers combined to win majorities in Nebraska and Idaho in the last month, but in both states, a third conservative candidate who batted down conspiracy theories about the 2020 election prevailed with plurality support.
In Nebraska, incumbent Secretary of State Bob Evnen won renomination with just 44 percent of the vote, and in Idaho, Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane won an open primary with 43 percent after the deniers split the vote.
That’s not a viable path for Raffensperger in Georgia, which sends the top two primary candidates to one-on-one runoffs if no one gets a majority of the vote. And that makes Tuesday’s primaries a true test of whether there’s room left in the GOP for an conservative Republican who checks nearly all the boxes on the party’s election administration orthodoxy — except for refusing to propagate the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
Trump has endorsed GOP Rep. Jody Hice to replace Raffensperger in Tuesday’s primary. The incumbent’s hope of political survival rests on whether Trump-fueled fury toward Raffensperger has died down over the last year, given that his reelection bid looked as good as over to many in 2021.
“I think it’s competitive,” said Brian Robinson, a longtime Georgia GOP operative. “And I don’t know that many prognosticators saw that coming a year ago, that Raffensperger is in it.”
Unlike the governor’s race, where recent public polling has shown Gov. Brian Kemp pulling away from Trump-endorsed David Perdue, the secretary of state primary has been much murkier, with fewer public polls — and far more undecided voters in the data that is available.
In a poll late last month from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the University of Georgia, Raffensperger and Hice were deadlocked in the high 20s. A plurality of voters, nearly 40 percent, said they were undecided, and the two other candidates — former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle, who lost to Raffensperger in a primary runoff in 2018, and former probate judge TJ Hudson — combined for about 9 percent.
The significant number of undecided voters in polling in the contest make it hard to predict what Tuesday’s outcome will be. But some supporters of Raffensperger believe that a runoff would be a more challenging environment for him, should he make it that far.
“A voter who is more likely to return in the runoff is a voter who is more motivated by something, [and] I think conventional wisdom would say that the anti-Raffensperger electorate would prevail in the runoff,” said Jason Shepherd, a former Cobb County GOP chair who has appeared in an ad for the incumbent.
Republicans like Hice, who voted in the House to not certify the 2020 presidential results, have made election administration roles a key focus in 2022. Republicans this week nominated far-right state Sen. Doug Mastriano to be their gubernatorial nominee in Pennsylvania, where the governor appoints the secretary of state. Trump endorsed state Rep. Mark Finchem for secretary of state in Arizona, where Finchem faces a primary, while the state GOP in Michigan endorsed another conspiracy theorist backed by Trump, Kristina Karamo, for secretary of state there.
A mid-April UGA poll showed that Trump’s endorsement of Hice was a powerful motivator in the downballot election that could push voters his direction — if voters knew about it. In the survey, one group of voters was just asked who they preferred for secretary of state in Georgia. That group gave Hice a lead over Raffensperger, 30 percent to 23 percent, with 39 percent undecided.
But among a second group of voters, who were told of Trump’s endorsement, Hice’s support rocketed up 60 percent, versus 16 percent for Raffensperger.
Georgia Republicans and allies of Raffensperger said that they believed Trump’s relative absence from the downballot race, and Kemp’s apparent strength among the Republican primary electorate, has given the secretary at least a chance in the state.
“I think a lot of the early projections about Raffensperger’s demise were based on the idea that Trump was going to be very aggressive in that state campaigning against him,” said Sarah Longwell, a Republican pollster who has been heavily involved in anti-Trump GOP groups. “Voters like Kemp. So Trump, it’s going to be embarrassing for him, so he just really kind of stayed out of the state. And that’s allowed Raffensperger to kind of fly under the radar.”
Longwell said that in various focus groups with Georgia voters she has conducted, many do not know who Hice is or that he has Trump’s endorsement. (She said it wasn’t uncommon for voters to mistakenly believe that Hice was a woman.)
“Look, I don’t think it’s a slam dunk. I just think he’s got renewed life in an outlook that, I think, was pretty fatalistic,” Longwell said. “There’s just this question of whether you can sort of squeak by because people aren’t thinking that hard about it.”
Raffensperger has also worked to reingratiate himself with conservative voters in the state. He has made regular appearances on conservative media, where he still defends the security of the 2020 election, while also promoting conservative election administration policies that put him on the same side as GOP base voters.
“He didn’t fall for the trap of just basking in the adulation of Trump haters,” said Robinson. “He communicated to Republicans, he presented a very conservative vision for elections administration.”
But while Trump hasn’t played a big role in the primary, he could have a heavier hand in a runoff.
Georgia Republicans speculated that, should Kemp win outright in the gubernatorial primary Tuesday and the secretary of state race heads to a runoff, Trump would turn his attention to the race in an effort to save face.
Trump has boosted Hice’s campaign, shouting him out in rallies and recording a robocall for the congressman as well. But many plugged-in Georgians said they have not heard much from Hice, which they say is critical for down-ballot races that are often overshadowed by more high-profile statewide contests.
“I’m seeing a lot of ads on social media from Brad Raffensperger, little bit from the others, from David Belle Isle, and not a whole lot from Jody Hice, which is odd,” said Buzz Brockway, a former state representative who finished fourth in the 2018 secretary of state primary.
Regardless of who wins the Republican nomination, the Georgia secretary of state race is expected to be one of the top election administration elections in November.
Democrats also have a crowded primary. But state Rep. Bee Nguyen has been both the fundraising leader and has secured big local and national endorsements — like Fair Fight, the organization founded by Stacey Abrams, and EMILY’s List. Polling has been sparse here as well, and some Democrats suggested that the crowded field may lead to a runoff.
And should Raffensperger emerge from the GOP primary, Democrats have vowed to not give him a pass in the general election. “The secretary of Georgia did the right thing in not overthrowing an American presidential election. That is also our jobs,” Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who chairs the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, told reporters earlier this week. “That is the minimum you should be doing.”